Lessons from the Scrubbin’ Bubbles: Tabletop Gaming in the World of One Piece
Warning: Minor spoilers for One Piece.
I’ve been a fan of the massively popular shounen adventure series One Piece since I was in high school. Getting into One Piece is a massive project; as I write this, it’s running strong with no end in sight at eight hundred and fifty six chapters. There’s a lot to like about the series, but one of its strongest and most distinctive traits is a vibrant, bold, and intricately detailed world.
As both a fan of anime and tabletop gaming, I had always wanted to play a game set in the world of one of my favorite series. In a way, it’s the ultimate expression of fandom: plunging yourself into the work and experiencing it for yourself. In fact, I had the opportunity run such a game a few years ago: a year-long Dungeons & Dragons campaign set in the world of One Piece.
In this three-part series, I’ll explore the methodology of running a game in your favorite setting, using my campaign in the world of One Piece as an example. First, I’ll highlight the elements of choosing your setting. Next, I’ll pull in examples from my campaign and demonstrate what worked and what didn’t work. Finally, I’ll bring it all together as a guide for you to customize your own adventure.
Setting Sail: Choosing your Adventure Setting
1. Find a world that resonates with themes that you want to explore.
Each game is different, and so needs to take place in a different setting. A good setting for a noir mystery game is starkly different from a good setting for a wacky beat-em-up cyper-punk game. Your setting and your game should complement and reinforce each other.
The world of One Piece is explicitly built around themes of adventure and exploration, with lots of varied islands and an endless sea. Additionally, the crew is a central part of the story, and this lends itself well to a tightly-knit group of player characters. Many other settings don’t offer a reason for the player characters to work together (“we met in a bar!” is the recurring cliche), but in the world of One Piece, merely travelling together is sufficient to bond a group of strangers into a family.
2. Choose a world that supports a wide variety of character concepts.
The tone and structure of a setting determines what kind of characters can reasonably exist within the setting. A fire-breathing robot would be out of place in a grim, dour Edo-era samurai setting. In general, it’s good to pick a setting where multiple kinds of characters can exist, so that your players have latitude with their character concepts. You’ll be surprised at what kinds of characters your players will come up with as you make more resources and sources of inspiration available.
One Piece has one of the most expansive and diverse casts of characters seen in any work of media, let alone anime or manga. You can put virtually any character with any ability in the Grand Line, and easily justify their existence with a flimsy excuse. The bar for nonsense ability explanations is canonically staggeringly low: you would have to do worse than a cyborg who powers up by drinking cola, a skeleton who is somehow able to maintain an afro because he has “strong roots,” or a starfish who can speak with humans because he forgot that he couldn’t speak with humans.
3. Choose a world that operates independently of the main characters in the story.
Some settings only make sense because of the context that the characters give them. In these kinds of works, the setting serves as a blank canvas on which a character drama unfolds. Settings like these can be stages for great and memorable stories, but are not the best choices for gaming, unless you know that your players will want to play as the characters from the story.
While the story in One Piece focuses on the Straw Hat Pirates, the world moves independently. Large, important events frequently happen away from the eyes of the main characters, and the powers that shape the world act with or without Luffy’s intervention. Because of this, it’s easy to create a story that centers around a different set of characters (the player characters) while incorporating the same logic and themes.
4. Choose a world that rewards exploration and critical thinking.
Unless you’re playing a game that’s explicitly nonsensical, you want a setting that encourages your players to think in-character. That translates into choosing a setting that’s logically internally consistent (even if it’s a fantasy setting).
The detail in a setting can suit different kinds of games. A world with lots of complicated internal politics might be great for a game geared around diplomacy and subtlety. On the other hand, a world where superbeings break continents with their fists may be a fun choice for an over-the-top action game, but a poor choice for a game about countries engaged in an informational cold war. Or, hell, it might be an excellent choice.
One Piece might be a series filled with nonsense, but beneath the rubbery surface, there’s an ocean of intrigue. Lore remains in the background for hundreds of chapters at a time. Meaningless locations sailed by early on become important at the drop of a straw hat. Characters are either blindingly stupid, or have clever motivations for all of their actions.
5. Find a world that you’re passionate about.
The best adventure is in a world that you just can’t get enough of – world that’s bursting with culture and character, or a world with a thousand mysteries, or a world filled with complexity and contradictions. When you’re absorbed in the setting, you’ll find yourself challenging the limits of your own imagination to make something truly unique.
I can’t count how many hours I’ve spent immersed in the world of One Piece, discussing its quirks and its characters with friends, re-reading the manga and wiki articles to find a small detail that I’ve missed. Although my fondness for the series waxes and wanes over time, I know that I can jump back in at any point to continue on the adventure.
Does the idea of crossing anime fandom and tabletop gaming appeal to you? Check out the Gaming Table – a monthly meeting through AnimeChicago dedicated to exactly that.